Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Breaking Away From the Herd

One of the most fascinating topics of observation and discussion is Human Behavior. More specifically the ability to predict Human Behavior based upon history.

We as people, no matter the race or religion are people - and we are pretty alike. Most of us love the college we attended, we root for the teams our parents rooted for, we dress like the people we hang around with most, and when it comes to money, we generally all move in a HERD.

Consider just the 2 booms:

1. Dot-Com Speculation - everybody has the hottest lead on the next Pets.com or mega-billion opportunity. Invest, Invest, Invest!

Dot-Com Crash. Sell, Sell, Sell! Back to Blue Chips & Real Estate!

2. Real Estate Speculation - When will property ever go down in value? Mortgage Backed Securities are GENIUS! Invest, Invest, Invest!

Mortgage Crisis, sinking Real Estate market... Banks stocks worthless! Sell, Sell, Sell! Horde Cash & buy Gold!

Any argument to the Herd concept is futile. We are humans, and moving in a herd is our nature.

Enter my topic: Breaking Away From the Herd Mentality

It seems to me that this may be one of the hardest things to do... I mean if "The Herd" is BAILING from Real Estate investments... how can investing in Real Estate make you money? The inherent demand for Real Estate in general is greatly diminished because of "The Herd's" lack of interest, right?

Consider the following:

When the Real Estate market was awesome, The Herd felt rich. The Herd began "thinking rich". Collectively, people all over the nation bought bigger houses with riskier loans. We spent more money on cars & travel... bought laptops & flatscreens, etc. We invested like rich people because as a Herd, we were "thinking rich".

What if - YOU had spent that period of time when cash was abundant "thinking broke" instead of "thingking rich" like The Herd at that time? What if instead of believing your home was worth triple what you paid, cashing in your HELOC, and BUYING consumer products like The Herd, you had horded Cash, saved and scraped every penny, and not allowed yourself to "think rich"?

Fast forward to January 2009... The Herd is not thinking so rich anymore! Today, The Herd is "thinking broke". The Herd has spent the last 12 to 18 months pinching pennies, canceling gym memberships, selling cars, refusing to buy consumer products, and trying now - when cash is far less abundant to be financially responsible.

If you had "thought broke" when The Herd was "thinking rich", you could probably afford to think rich today... and truly create some wealth.

This is the essence of breaking away from The Herd. Ask yourself what the Herd is thinking, and move to capitalize on it.

Some Examples:
The Herd - What will we do in this uncertain economy?
The Leader - How will I profit in this uncertain economy?

The Herd - When will this bad economy end so we can live life like before?
The Leader - I hope that I have enough time to take full advantage before the economy recovers!

The Herd - Is afraid that "the Economy" won't get better.
The Leader - Is afraid "the Economy" will get better before I have had the time I need to capitalize on The Herd's thinking.

The Herd - blames "the Economy".
The Leader - takes personal action and doesn't care what everyone else does.

To sum up... RIGHT NOW is the best time in history to make yourself grow as a leader - and resist the temptation to follow the herd.

Right now is the time - if there ever was to take a risk... lead your life, and watch your money grow.

Redefining Risk

A moment reviewing a topic too often avoided, nearly always minimized, and quite frankly - not given enough press time when it comes to making money grow: RISK

There are lots of pieces to totality of the RISK puzzle, and most risk exists - at the very end - because of the Human Factor. It is pretty risky that someone - from a bank executive to your business partner - will get tempted by the cash and BAM, the Human Factor just happened!

In real estate deals there are all kinds of risks: Opportunity Cost, Entitlement Risk, Development Risk, Financing Risk, Construction Risk, Timing Risk, Saturation Risk, In & Out-Migration, Local vs. Macro Economics, Saturation, Exposure, Path of Progress... yada, yada, yada. The Human Factor plays a huge role in all of this.

Many similar risks exist in traditional business and the investment in them that is required to make these businesses successful: Supply & Demand, Inventory Velocity, Management Risk, Competition Risk, Location, Cost of Goods, Cost of Overhead, Market Conditions, and many others.

Note: Please leave a note with some of the more critical risks I may have overlooked.

I have been reviewing investments personally, and watching as investors review investments... and concluded that too often investors are seeking a "NO RISK" investment.

All too often, I have observed as investors elect not to pursue a viable project because they perceive "too much risk".

Warren Buffet has been quoted, "Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing".

I have heard stated that Larry H. Miller of the Utah Jazz has achieved such tremendous success because of his willingness to risk everything.

Another thought provoking quote might be "The greatest risk is to risk nothing".

So of our the 2008 Stock Market debacle, is it fair to say that one of the greatest risks around is believing there is none? How many investments from the 401 K to the Mutual Fund have been presented as "No-Risk" or "Low-Risk" growth opportunities? I have personally witnessed clients attempting to paint me into the corner of telling them that the risk I just finished explaining, is not really a risk, LOL! (Sure, the home could go down in value because the market slows down and stated income mortgages are no longer available - but come on, that is not really a risk, is it? Is it?)

So how is this for Redefining Risk: If you can't easily identify your risk in an investment, it may be too risky. (Some might argue that this does not apply to certain situations, and I may sometimes agree... but consider WorldCom, Enron, CountryWide, Wachovia, GM and others... sometimes the greatest risk is believing there is none - and entrusting other fallable humans to direct the outcome of your money for you.)

The counter principle to this would be to identify the specific risks of each investment, and identify the mitigating factors - or plans to offset this risk. Here's some ways to do that:

1. Offset Risk with LTV or Price
2. Offset Risk with Value Added
3. Offset Risk with Runway
4. Offset Risk with Experience or Strategy

1. Offset Risk with LTV or Price.
This seems to be the only factor that investors really believe in... and I believe in the years to come it may prove to be THE RISKIEST of the ways to offset Risk. This strategy is kind of the same as using a hammer to address risk, instead of a scalpel.

Consider investors in a real estate deal who lend against a property and rely solely on Appraised Values to determine the amount they lend, and the worthiness of an investment. Lenders often change thier LTV's or Loan To Values when they are concerned about a deal being risky. (Loan 85% LTV when the market is good but only 65% or even less in a tight market.)

Naturally the underlying principle is that if you loan less against the value, then you decrease your exposure to risk, or the investment is "more secure". Let's carry this concept through... If banks and investors continue lending an ever lower amount against valuable, potentially performing assets - even with legitimate exit strategies, they rob thier borrowers of cash critical to making projects successful. What investment is riskier - a deal where you loan 50% loan to value and the borrower has no cash to do the deal, or where you lend 75% of the value of an asset, and the borrower has the cash to do a deal? With a well sourced and qualified exit strategy - who is to say that lending 90% and placing greater controls on loan proceeds would not be a more viable exit?

My experiences with Banks and Lenders is that they place far too much emphasis on Appraisal, and LTV, and credit worthiness of a buyer - and almost ignore the most critical issue: the FINAL Exit Strategy. (Who will buy this asset if my borrower does not perform? The LTV might be 20% LTV, but if the pool of buyers for the asset class is not buying, be prepared to own the asset... and take on all of the risk you hoped to avert as a lender...

2. Offset Risk with Value Added
There are lots of examples for how "risky" investments can be the strongest. A friend Scott Moyes loves to say, "if you walk into a foreclosed, dilapidated home, pet stains throughout, and smells like a combination of doggy doo and cigarette smoke... take a long slow whiff! That is the smell of money!"

So who cares if you pay "FULL PRICE" for this rundown home... add some value (new carpet, new paint, a month or 2 of work, and now you've got something.

This home is actually a metaphor for DEALS. Use exactly this principle to find investments with some smelly deal points that need a bit of work or polish... and spend time and money working through them - those can be your strongest investments.

3. Offset Risk with Runway.
This principle is Timing, Timing, Timing. A deal that looks too risky today may be the best deal you could do in 10 years. Tie the deal up with an option, obtain seller financing, or finance the deal with lots of time out in front of you and you will find that time really can heal a lot of wounds.

Take a property down in phases, or make the funding of the deal contingent upon the meeting of certain milestones. You'll be amazed at how much gets done when there is money in it for the parties involved.

Timing can also be your greatest enemy, and once you are all in a deal, move quickly. I have seen firsthand what happens when you miss a window of opportunity.

4. Offset Risk with Experience or Strategy.
Not to be confused with Value Added, there are several good examples of offsetting risk with experience or strategy.

Mortgage Companies have employed this principle for years - by charging Mortgage Insurance premiums to people whose Mortgage LTV's are too high. These insurance premiums formed a strategy by which the Mortgage Lender could be protected from the Human Factor. (People die, lose jobs, get divorced, etc.)

These same companies found a way to work around the system with the 80% first, 20% second, and voila - now second mortgages are trading for around .01 to .03 cents on the dollar - so a solid strategy can also outsmart itself sometimes. (These 80/20's have been bad for the second mortgage company - but may SAVE some of the first mortgage holders in a lousy market!)

Another example of offsetting risk with experience is simply that of having experience. If you have doubts about a deal, go get somebody with a lot of experience and do it with them! The experience they have is an important component to giving you experience, and can save a deal if times get tough.

Another Thought: Risk vs. Secure
Today's Blog is not recomending you jump into risky deals that won't work. In fact, as I sort of flushed out this principle in my mind, I think it important to clarify that you obviously always want SECURITY for your investment... but that Security is different than no risk. A strong viable company stock, or piece of land can have plenty of risk, and prove to be less secure than a signature loan to a guy hell-bent on paying you back.

In the end, maybe the only thing we can predict with certainty is that the unpredictable will happen... so just account for it!

I hope the next time you are presented with that perfectly crafted, "insider secrets", "pays three percent per month", No-Risk plan that simply cannot fail, remember that it probably will.

But if you find a deal with some real risk on it... a deal with a viable, measurable exit strategy but some real risk as well, and the risk is sitting there growing hair - take a real look at the deal. Carefully measure and plan for the means of offsetting those risks - and if there is a real plan for resolving the risks, jump in!

And do me a favor - the next time you get pitched that perfect plan, tell the guy selling it "Not enough risk". He will probably think you are crazy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Rules for Making Financial Decisions

We are here to talk about money... but before we can begin there must be some ground rules.

When making decisions (of any kind) and especially when making money decisions - ground rules are critical... or money just sort of has a way of, disappearing.

When I got home from living in Germany for two years, and was ready to go to work, and more importantly ready to get serious about finding someone to be my wife, my Dad explained that there was just 1 rule: There are no rules.

I think what Dad meant was that it was my life, and I could choose to live it my way. He explained that there would be people who agreed and disagreed with the way I chose to do things, but as long as I did what was right, the rest was up to me.

I propose that this be adopted as Rule #1: There are no rules.

For the second rule, allow me to share a story from an important favorite book of mine, Becoming Your Own Banker. The author, Nelson Nash tells a story about a cowboy in the old west who robbed more banks than any other... his name was Charlie. Finally one day the law caught old Charlie Thorpe, and questioned him. As the story goes, someone asked Charlie "Why do you keep robbing banks?", to which Charlie replied, "Because that is where they keep the money."

This is Rule #2: Where there is money, there are people who want access to it.

This includes YOU. I can honestly say that in more instance than one I have robbed myself of a terrific financial opportunity because I had earlier opted for something I wanted.

This also includes: ME, the government, financial advisers, attorneys, accountants, tax planners, estate planners, stock brokers, insurance brokers, real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, bankers, your friends, your spouse, your kids, and everyone else on the planet.

Now moving on to a critical rule that I have come to appreciate and cherish. I wish for some of you that the importance of this rule is unclear - because if so, your life is far simpler than my own. It seems that the more complex of a financial environment I work in, the more I come to understand the principal of INCENTIVE.

When I was young I believed that there were good people and bad people. That if I only surrounded myself with the good ones, that everything would be fine. I have since learned that there are in fact good and bad people, and that regardless of the people you associate with, people behave in their own SELF-interest 99.9% of the time, and the other .01% of the time they think they are, and are too dumb to know otherwise. (You will notice I said SELF-Interest, not BEST-Interest.)

The book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt is a terrific reference for scientific data that proves this to be the case. The book is entertaining, fun, and very important if you want to learn to understand incentives.

Allow me a quick example: A stock broker knows that the ABC Fund has averaged 8% for the last 25 years. He knows that the XYZ Fund has done 7%, and the 123 Fund has grown 9% the last 25 years. So which product will the stock broker sell you? The answer is simple: He'll always sell the fund that pays him the most commission.

Now for those of you for whom that example is a little too obvious and elementary, my next blog is a whole twisted web of changing incentives! I hope you'll enjoy.

To recap Rule #3: Good and bad people act in their own SELF INTEREST. To understand a deal you must understand the INCENTIVES of the people doing the deal!

And finally, our final rule - perhaps the most important rule of all. The founding fathers said that all men were created equal, and for the most part they are right.

There is one asset that we all have an equal share of for as long as we are breathing air, and that is TIME. Money, Land, Houses, Cars, they can all be replaced (or close) but TIME cannot be stopped.

Time and deals wait for no one. It has been said that there are 3 rules in Real Estate: Location, Location, Location. I will never forget meeting Mike Barnes at Market Street Broiler and having him say "You know what the REAL 3 Rules of Real Estate are, don't you?", and I suddenly felt a certain self doubt as I responded inquisitively, "Location, Location, Location?". Mike just smiled and said, "No, the 3 Rules are Timing, Timing, Timing".

How, and into What we invest our time is critical, but THAT we invest our time is EVERYTHING... because Time is the only asset that can never be replaced.

I see countless people SPEND their time at a job leading nowhere, teaching them nothing, only to come home and SPEND their time doing everything possible to avoid thinking about their job. How much better to INVEST time into the job leading nowhere, so they could learn the importance of INVESTING time, and develop themselves in their free time, to improve their income... and begin INVESTING their extra money.

Others I see do nothing while they wait for the perfect easy opportunity, only to watch it pass them by. This may not be SPENDING time, but it could be called sitting on time. No matter how or into what, INVEST your time. It is your greatest asset.

Rule #4: Time is the only asset that can not be replaced. Invest It.

Let's sum up:
Rule #1: There are no rules.
Rule #2: Where there is money, there are people who want access to it.
Rule #3: Good and bad people act in their own SELF INTEREST. Before you make a decision, understand the INCENTIVES of the people it will impact!
Rule #4: Time is the only asset that can not be replaced. Invest It.

If you will believe that there are no rules, and that you can do anything you want, and be aware that lots of people will want to access your money because it is in their own interest to do so, and if you will begin now putting your TIME into learning to make sound decisions, I believe you will become wealthy, and happier in every facet of your life.

I just hope I can do the same!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Prelude to Freedom

Consider what it must have been like in the years preceding the American Revolution.

I imagine that the collective consciousness of our founding fathers up and down the original 13 states was onto something... that conditions in their lives and society had people all over - from all walks of life drawing some of the same conclusions at the same time, although completely independently: The time had come for them to be FREE.

I cannot imagine the exhilaration that must have overtaken them... the events that culminated. Like a pot of water heating on a stove waiting to boil, accelerating faster and faster toward an instant where it was changed...

I would love someone to share some links and references directing me to where I can read some of the incredible less-told tales of our fathers.

Surely in the beginning the movement began in a whisper... conversations in a town store or tavern near the marina... people realizing / concluding individually and collectively that a change MUST occur - and instantly began shaping a picture for what and how these changes would be actualized.

Perhaps early on George Washington from Virginia or John Adams from Massachusetts (or wherever) did not even know of each others' existence... in that they did not initially know the name of their counterpart in the next town or state. What they did know is that the leader in the next town was ready - and that society was ready to change - and even to fight for change.

What a time and feeling that must have been!

I believe that we are now living in just such a time... Americans are ready to return to being the greatest nation on earth, and make the changes - whatever they may require to being FREE.

As I have read the works of Emerson, Shaw, James or Dewey I have often wondered why so many great minds lived then, and yet now... (it has seemed) there are no great challengers. My Dad speaks with emotion about those who fought in the second World War; who stormed the beaches at Normandy or fought in the south Pacific. Today we call those people "The Greatest Generation"... and it is true - yet only because OUR Revolution, OUR Fight for Freedom has
only just begun.

If you listen you will hear it.

Go speak with your friends at a gathering. Listen to the woes of everyone you speak with, whether they are co-workers or neighbors, and you will hear the whispers of a new beginning.

This Blog is just one of many from the collective conscious of society as we all begin to shape our New America.

I hope this is not taken in any way to be a radical movement.

Our Fight for Freedom will be personal, individual, and values driven. It will change the way we as Americans spend and save money. It will change how we invest and value things like stocks and bonds. Our Fight will impact our views of the environment, oil consumption, religion, immigration, education.

It will not be won criticizing our current leaders, or by calling national radio shows.

This fight - if it is to be won - will be fought individually and personally. First within ourselves, and then with our children, and family. It will then extend to those we know and love - and continue until we have won as a nation, and as a world.

It will start with YOU, whoever you are. Your decision to BE FREE, and get off the couch and LEARN HOW. Maybe the first part of learning how is a simple refusal to be captive?

By no means do I have a concrete picture of how it will all look when we are done... but I am ready to start, and I pray you will join me.

There ARE 3 things you can do to get started;

1. Join this blog.
2. Refer others to join.
3. Comment Often.

We will be having America Remix meetings 2 times per month in any city where someone wants to step forward and hold the meetings. Please let me know if you are interested so we can get the cause going. In Salt Lake City, I have arranged for these meetings to begin starting NEXT FRIDAY. The meeting will be held in West Jordan. Contact me for info! americaremix@gmail.com.

Finally, if you own a blog or would like to join me as a co-author of this blog, please let me know. Let's get to work!